title ‘Imagined Solidarities’ is open to at least three interpretations.
The idea of worker or trade union solidarity is today (and always was?)
imaginary, illusory, fictitious, unattainable.
Solidarity is a utopia, a Sorelian myth, unrealisable yet perhaps capable
of inspiring action which results in its partial accomplishment. This is
the sense in which Anderson (1983) writes of nations as ‘imagined communities’:
people conceive a commonality with others whom they do not know and of
whose specific identities they are unaware, with such powerful sentiments
that nationalism is probably the most significant mobilising principle
of our time.
The integration of diverse and competing (or indeed conflicting) employee
interests cannot be achieved mechanically but requires creative imagination.
argument is that any simple conception of solidarity (‘mechanical solidarity’
of the working class) is and was imaginary in the first sense; that mythic
solidarity (‘solidarity forever’) may historically have provided inspiration
and perhaps helped generate a reality approximating to the ideal, but probably
can no longer do so; and that collectivism, particularly of an encompassing
character, is therefore a project demanding new forms of strategic imagination.
the discussion which follows I develop each of these themes, and consider
how far the socio-economic transformations commonly identified as globalization
have altered the problem of constructing solidarity.
Unity of Labour: an Imagined Universal Class
the revolutionary theories of Marx — a powerful influence on both trade
union activists and analysts of trade unionism — derive a conception of
the unity of working-class interests and a conception of unions’ historical
mission to articulate this unity.
‘classic’ Marxian conception rested on at least three foundations. First,
in his early ‘philosophical’ writings, Marx recast the Hegelian interpretation
of history. Human emancipation required material force: and specifically,
a class whose own particular interests could be achieved not within the
existing society but only through transforming society as a whole. As he
insisted in the Introduction to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of
Law, the proletariat constituted ‘a class with radical chains, a class
within civil society that is not of civil society...’. Because of the totality
of its oppression within bourgeois society, the working class suffered
‘the complete loss of humanity and can only redeem itself through the total
redemption of humanity’. Hence famously, ‘the proletarians have nothing
to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.’
those who did enjoy distinctive interests and advantages in the
labour market did so as relics of pre-capitalist relations of production;
the advance of capitalism involved the degradation of traditional skills
and the homogenisation of the proletariat. Both the rationale and the result
of mechanisation involved the reduction of capitalists’ dependence on the
discretion of expert workers and on the availability of scarce and hence
expensive labour power.
the objective commonality of class interests (the proletariat as
a class ‘in itself’) would lead inevitably to workers’ subjective consciousness
of their common identity and historical mission as a class ‘for itself’.
The increasing inefficacy of defensive and particularistic struggles would
persuade workers of the need to organise comprehensively as a class and
to pursue the total transformation of society. Trade unions, as agencies
of working-class collective struggle, would inevitably be shaped by this
is unnecessary to rehearse the problems underlying this conception; the
critiques are all too familiar. The thesis of homogenisation ¾ as
much sociological discussion of ‘deskilling’ in the last two decades witnesses
¾ rests on a unilinear reading of the dynamics of the capitalist
labour process and labour market. In practice, new differentiations arise
as old ones are weakened (a process which Marx himself, in Capital,
saw as characteristic of the era of ‘manufacture’, but as unable to persist
with the advance of increasingly mechanised ‘modern industry’). The idea
of objective class unity seems to conflate the abstract (the structural
relationship between wage-labour and capital) and the concrete (the circumstances
of actually existing workers and their relations among themselves and with
actually existing employers, among others); as Sayer and Walker (1992:
29) put it, ‘division of labour is not merely a modifier in the grammar
of class’. The conceptual and practical linkage between ‘objective’ class
and ‘subjective’ consciousness is moreover inadequately theorised (primarily
in The Poverty of Philosophy and the Communist Manifesto)
by simple analogy with the rise of the bourgeoisie as a hegemonic class.
is different. We are shaped by our direct experiences, immediate milieux,
specific patterns of social relations. Broader identities and affiliations
are founded on the direct, immediate and specific, through intersubjectivities
which link these to the external and encompassing. Solidarity implies the
perception of commonalities of interest and purpose which extend, but do
not abolish, consciousness of distinct and particularistic circumstances.
existing trade unions reflect these processes. The earliest unions typically
emerged as organisations of distinct occupational communities of interest
within local labour markets. The development of multi-occupational unionism
with a broader geographical compass normally required either the external
intervention of a politically driven class project, or the gradual experience
of the limited efficacy of too narrow a representational base. The ‘one
big union’ of syndicalist aspirations remained a dream.
boundaries of union inclusion are also frontiers of exclusion. The perceived
common interests of the members of a particular union (or confederation)
are defined in part in contradistinction to those of workers outside. In
compartmentalising workers, unions traditionally have compartmentalised
Labour Movements: Solidarity as a Mobilising Myth
can only be met to the extent that they are partly redefined’ (Offe and
Wiesenthal 1985: 184). It is a sociological truism that the elusive notion
of interests has both objective and subjective dimensions, and that the
relationship between the two is never fixed. Through their own internal
processes of communication, discussion and debate — the ‘mobilisation of
bias’ — unions can help shape workers’ own definitions of their individual
and collective interests. Cumulatively, the outcomes compose the patterns
of commonality and conflict among the interests of different groups and
hence contribute to the dynamics of sectionalism and solidarity within
from Durkheim — though applying his concepts flexibly — one may define
the classic form of interest definition and representation as ‘mechanical
solidarity’. Durkheim attributed order and stability in traditional society
to the repressive imposition of standardised rules and values on members
whose circumstances were relatively homogeneous. Traditional trade unionism
displayed some similarities. The aggregation of interests which is essential
for any coherent collective action involves establishing priorities among
a variety of competing grievances and aspirations. One reason why many
employers came to perceive the value (to themselves) of the existence of
a recognised vehicle of employee ‘voice’ was that unions filtered out (or
perhaps suppressed) certain demands and discontents while highlighting
others. Another was that unions could be induced to share responsibility
with management for disruptive initiatives and uncomfortable changes.
unions, in other words, are agencies whose role in the aggregation of interests
may also involve the (re-)distribution of gains and losses: not only between
workers and employers but also among workers themselves. Typically the
definition of union-relevant interests has reflected systematically the
existing distribution of power within the working class.
are often presented as expressions of the general interests of the class
have traditionally been in large measure representations of the particular
interests of relatively protected sections. In Britain in the nineteenth
century, for example, craft unions representing a fraction of the labour
force with distinctive (relative) advantages were nevertheless widely perceived
(and often perceived themselves) as representatives of a general world
of labour. In many European countries in the first half of the present
century, coal-miners assumed the status of archetypal proletarians and
helped inspire a particular iconography and discourse of the nature of
collective solidarity and collective struggle. The ‘mass worker’ in engineering
production (and above all, on car assembly lines) subsequently constituted
the ‘model trade unionist’ in much of Europe.
effect, the type of solidarity typically constitutive of twentieth century
trade unionism tended to reflect and replicate on the one hand the discipline
and standardisation imposed by ‘Fordist’ mass production, on the other
the patterns of differentiation within the working class between those
who were central to this production process and those who were more marginal.
Thus within companies and sectors, collective bargaining priorities were
normally set by core groups of full-time production workers (typically
male, white, with a stable place in the internal labour market); within
national labour movements, priorities were imposed by the big battalions
(typically the unions of manual manufacturing workers, notably metal workers).
with this form of mechanical solidarity was clearly an implicit bias in
terms of whose interests counted for most. But also affected was
the conception of which interests were relevant for union representation
and bargaining policy. A specific conception of the relationship between
‘work’ and ‘life’ has been seen in retrospect to have informed working-class
organisation; one which in particular counterposed a full-time (male) wage-worker
in mine, mill or factory and a full-time (female) domestic worker in the
home. That reality was always more complex than this did not prevent the
model from shaping firmly the conceptions of which issues were union-relevant
and which were not.
Crisis of Mechanical Solidarity
over a decade, it has been common for academic writers to speak of a crisis
of trade unionism (Edwards et al., 1986; Regini, 1992). Müller-Jentsch
(1988) has identified three types of underlying challenge: increasing heterogeneity
within the labour force, creating a ‘crisis of interest aggregation’; decentralisation
of employment regulation to company and workplace levels, resulting in
a ‘crisis of workers’ loyalty towards their unions’; and failure to organise
effectively the key occupations in the dynamic sectors of the economy,
giving rise to a ‘crisis of union representation’. These factors may be
viewed as elements in a series of interlocking transformations: a more
unstable and segmented labour market; more strategic (or aggressive) employer
approaches to the management of labour; intensified competitive pressures
in product markets; the support (though to different degrees) of most European
governments for deregulation of industrial relations.
many trade unionists resisted the very idea of a crisis (Mouriaux, 1995:
3). Increasingly, however, there has been an acceptance that traditional
policies and forms of organisation have lost their effectiveness; that
if unions are to remain significant social actors in the new millennium
they must be transformed and renewed. There is widespread discussion within
European labour movements of the need for ‘modernisation’ of trade unions
(Mückenberger et al., 1996), even if as yet the evidence of its achievement
is my thesis that what is normally conceived as a crisis of trade unionism
as such may be better understood as a crisis of a particular model
of trade unionism, one based on what I have termed mechanical solidarity.
The debate on ‘modernisation’ may thus be reconceptualised as a search
for a new model, which again following Durkheim we may term ‘organic solidarity’.
Before elaborating on this thesis I will first outline three factors which
are commonly identified as underlying causes of the crisis of traditional
increased internal differentiation within the working population (linked
to diagnoses of ‘individualism’) (Zoll, 1993);
intensified competition, restructuring and ‘deregulation’ (often conceptualised
within a ‘globalisation’ perspective) turning intra-class bargaining increasingly
into a zero- (or negative-) sum game (Golden and Pontusson, 1992) and encouraging
micro-level ‘solutions’ to macro-problems;
the erosion of egalitarian commitments within labour movements (Swenson,
1989), reflected both in increased internal differentiation among trade
unions; and in the eclipse of the communist political model and the exhaustion
of the social-democratic.
differentiation, there would be no need for solidarity. Solidarity is a
project to reconcile differences of situation and of interest, to offer
support and assistance to the claims of groups and individuals irrespective
of immediate advantage in respect of one’s own circumstances. Solidarity
became a slogan of labour movements precisely because the working class
was not a homogeneous unity, because divisive sectionalism was an
ever-present possibility, and because painful experience showed that isolated
and often competitive struggles by fragmented groups were more often than
not mutually defeating.
if vertical and horizontal differentiation is anything but new, has it
assumed new forms which imply new obstacles to the attainment of solidarity?
One argument is that the deviation from the mean, so to speak, has increased,
and that this poses serious problems for union organisation. Traditional
patterns of unionisation, in the private sector at least, appear to display
the familiar inverted U curve. The most advantaged sections — those with
high educational qualifications and favourable career expectations, for
example — commonly saw no need for collective organisation, or may have
considered it a threat to promotion prospects to take what might be seen
as anti-employer initiatives. Conversely, the poorest, most vulnerable
and most insecure sections of the labour force — who may perhaps have had
the greatest need for unionisation — commonly lacked the resources to build
stable collective organisation, and were easily victimised if they did
make the attempt. Unions built their strongholds among the relatively secure,
relatively well paid ‘core’ working class (what some writers termed the
‘mass worker’) (Paci, 1973). It was in the era when such workers constituted
the dominant section of the active labour force that union density in many
countries reached its peak, and labour movements as a whole seemed best
able to identify shared interests.
distinct feature of the restructuring of work and employment in recent
times has been a two-fold differentiation. At one extreme, the creation
of new skills and the blurring of the manual/white-collar divide have had
two important consequences. These trends have generated a significant category
of ‘winners’ from the process of technological and organisational change:
a new elite probably unresponsive to the appeals of traditional trade unionism;
conversely there has been a rapid growth of a ‘white-collar proletariat’
(often female) whose security and prospects depend on the employer’s goodwill.
At the other extreme, there has been a substantial growth of precarious
and ‘atypical’ forms of employment, particularly with the decline of manufacturing,
the cutbacks in the public sector, and the expansion of an array of private-sector
services. This peripheral workforce has in most countries proved painfully
difficult to unionise, if indeed unions have even made the attempt. Unions
face difficult choices in terms of the constituencies they seek to represent:
they can either stick with a declining core, attempt to address the special
interests (and advantages) of the new ‘elite’, or struggle to represent
the periphery; but it is an enormous challenge to develop strategies which
point effectively in all directions. Certainly this cannot be achieved
by rhetorical assertions of a unity of interests.
differentiation links to the issue of individualism. In many European countries
it has become common to argue that one of the key problems confronting
trade unions has been a socio-cultural transformation whereby traditional
working-class values of collectivism have given way to more individualistic
orientations. In one sense this argument is trite and simplistic. Collectivism
has never represented an alternative to individual interests and individual
identities: trade unionism has traditionally provided a pooling of resources
allowing workers more effectively to defend and advance their personal
interests. While union members may indeed have been conscious of common
occupational or employmental interests, this did not negate their individual
circumstances and projects. Trade unions have rarely been able to rely
on a spontaneous urge to collectivism: to integrate diversity into an organisation
with a common set of objectives has been a task to accomplish, and with
no guarantee of success.
said, it is plausible to argue that the task has become more difficult
in recent times. There is a stereotype of the traditional proletarian status
which emphasises a common work situation, an integrated and homogeneous
local community, and a limited repertoire of shared cultural and social
pursuits. Though exaggerated, this stereotype does identify a core of historical
reality, particularly in the single-industry manual working-class milieux
in which the ‘modern’ mass trade unionism had its strongest roots. By contrast,
in contemporary society the spatial location and social organisation of
work, residence, consumption and sociability have become highly differentiated.
Today the typical employee may live a considerable distance from fellow-workers,
possess a largely ‘privatised’ domestic life or a circle of friends unconnected
with work, and pursue cultural or recreational interests quite different
from those of other employees in the same workplace. This disjuncture between
work and community (or indeed the destruction of community in much of its
traditional meaning) entails the loss of many of the localised networks
which strengthened the supports of union membership (and in some cases
made the local union almost a ‘total institution’).
consequence, trade unionism seems confronted with two main options. One
is to develop a much more calculative attachment based on a narrowly specified
set of occupational interests. The other is to appeal to a more diffuse
set of interests which transcend local and particularistic identities:
the classic project of ‘social movement unionism’ (Johnson, 1994; Waterman,
most western European countries, ‘modern’ systems of industrial relations
became consolidated around the middle of this century as a key element
in post-war settlements which though nation-specific contained many common
features. Their foundation was the existence of relative job security (at
least for a substantial core of primarily male manufacturing workers in
larger firms) under macroeconomic conditions of ‘full’ employment, often
buttressed by legal supports. This was in turn facilitated by stable or
expanding demand in key product markets and by institutional and other
constraints on destructive market competition. The organised capitalism
which achieved its high point in the 1950s and 1960s helped establish trade
unions as central actors in a variety of national systems of employment
regulation (Standing, 1997).
‘social market economy’ which in different forms characterised post-war
western Europe (even if the term itself was exclusively German) is challenged
by the intensified competitive restructuring of national economies (Mahnkopf
and Altvater, 1995). Many writers refer to a process of globalisation,
and although this term has been challenged (Boyer and Drache, 1997; Hirst
and Thompson, 1996) a transnational concentration and centralisation of
capital certainly has occurred, though primarily within separate world
areas (North America, Europe, the Asian Pacific). In Europe this has been
reflected (as was indeed one of the aims of the Single Market project)
in an acceleration of foreign direct investment between EU countries and
a rapid process of corporate consolidation through mergers, take-overs
and joint ventures.
past dozen years have witnessed the rise of the ‘Euro-company’ (Marginson
and Sisson, 1996) as a specific type of multinational corporation (MNC).
In previous decades, the ‘problem of MNCs’ for European trade unions was
relatively narrow and specific: how to contain foreign-owned (primarily
American) enterprises within the regulatory frameworks of national industrial
relations systems. In the 1990s the problem has become broader and more
serious: the internationalisation of significant segments of ‘national
capital’ and the potential abdication of key companies from the role of
interlocutor within a national system of ‘social partnership’. The most
dramatic instance, perhaps, is the case of Sweden: the major employers
in effect ‘joined’ the EU long before the country’s formal accession, and
demolished the classic centralised ‘Swedish model’ of industrial relations
the better to pursue more company-specific and internationalised employment
policies. In most other European countries, analogous pressures are apparent.
The growing importance of the Euro-company threatens established forms
of cross-company standardisation and solidarity while at the same time
necessitating new forms of cross-national co-ordination on the part of
visible hand of the MNCs interacts with the increasingly coercive invisible
hand of finance capital. The last two decades have seen a radical transformation
involving: the liberalisation and deregulation of international capital
and currency markets; the acceleration of transactions (to the point of
virtual instantaneity) as a result of advances in information and telecommunications
technologies; and the breakdown of the American-dominated post-war system
of international monetary stabilisation. The result is a highly volatile
pattern of capital flows. Unpredictable (speculative) fluctuations in the
paper values of company shares or national currencies are translated into
disruptive oscillations in the physical economy.
matrix for the formative period of capitalist industrialisation, and for
the various Keynesian-influenced systems of post-war macroeconomic management,
was the regulatory capacity of the nation-state. As Rogers has argued (1995:
370), the scope for pressure on the state to deliver material benefits
of general application itself encouraged ‘the political project of uniting
across differences’. It is indeed true that in most European economies
the pivotal importance of the export sector ensured that industrial relations
policies were consistent with international competitiveness. Nevertheless
the national state, and the parties to collective bargaining, could address
the labour market as a more or less closed system. The consequence of globalisation
is that market dynamics are increasingly subject to exogenous determination:
the ‘confidence’ of the institutions and agents of international financial
transactions sets new, onerous and often unpredictable constraints on the
agenda of national industrial relations (Streeck, 1992). It also means
that the attraction to (some) employers of nationally co-ordinated collective
bargaining as a means of ‘taking wages out of competition’ has been eroded
(Jacoby 1995: 8).
significant feature of intensified market coercion is the internal restructuring
of the firm. The traditional large company was hierarchically organised
with a high degree of internal standardisation. This structure (which the
development, within the largest firms, of divisionalisation by product
only partially modified) was conducive to similarly standardised and bureaucratic
forms of collective employment regulation. Corporate structure encouraged
a particular type of employee solidarity. By contrast, current principles
of business organisation have fragmented the terrain of collective action.
Increasingly — though faster in some countries than in others — the centralised
firm has given way to the ‘hollow company’ (Sabel, 1992). This process
has three key elements: the externalisation through sub-contracting and
franchising of many of the non-core functions of the firm; the formal separation
of conglomerate companies into legally differentiated subsidiaries; and
the devolution of decision-making responsibility to a network of business
units. The common characteristic of these changes is the spread of market
relationships within the boundaries of the firm, imposing accountancy criteria
as the key performance indicators and setting the various sub-units in
competition one with another (Coller, 1996; Mueller, 1996).
competitive pressures have reconstituted the patterns of employment security
and insecurity. In the past, in most countries, there has been a rather
close mapping between regulation by collective bargaining and a relatively
secure labour market position. Union organisation and bargaining strength
were facilitated by, and in turn reinforced, internal labour markets which
protected the core workforce from the employer’s ability to hire and fire
at will. Conversely, in many countries there existed a substantial secondary
labour market with far weaker (or non-existent) collective regulation,
where employment was far more casualised. (A third category, those who
constituted an occupational elite, were often also weakly covered by collective
bargaining but possessed scarce professional qualifications which provided
relative autonomy from adverse market forces.) The significance of intensified
product market competition is that the link between collective regulation
and employment security is more fundamentally ruptured: the protection
of the internal labour market is undermined if the whole workplace becomes
vulnerable to radical job loss or total closure. A substantial proportion
of collectivised employees now constitutes an endangered labour force.
To the extent that market forces or their proxies have been imposed in
public employment, moreover, this vulnerability encompasses sectors previously
completely protected from the vagaries of product competition and production
industrial relations consequences involve at least three major challenges
to the trade union role in interest representation. First, there are strong
pressures to engage in concession bargaining in the interests of enhanced
competitiveness: trading off employment guarantees for restraint in pay
bargaining (or even real wage reductions), agreement to changes in the
organisation of production which conflict with established protective regulations,
and/or more general acceptance of managerial authority. Unions which in
previous decades based their appeal to workers on their ability to win
tangible improvements in pay and working conditions have a far harder task
to justify their existence if obliged to accept the reversal of their former
the endangered status of unionised companies and workplaces encourages
enterprise egoism: survival of the establishment assuming overriding importance
for local negotiators. The outcome can become a cumulative undercutting
of national/sectoral regulatory standards: a process often deliberately
encouraged by MNCs with their ability to ‘benchmark’ the performance of
their various subsidiaries and to base investment (and disinvestment) decisions
on relative compliance with management requirements. If the workforce of
each production unit becomes driven by the demands of mutual competition,
the logical result is both intra- and international social dumping.
within as well as between workforces the process of interest representation
more sharply differentiates (relative) winners and (absolute) losers. For
employees, the response to increasingly coercive market pressures seems
to involve a negative-sum game. The logic of market relations is that competition
reinforces disparities of power within as well as between classes. In the
distribution of the costs of competitive restructuring, trade unions’ own
internal balance of power is likely to favour the relatively advantaged
at the expense of the most insecure.
Eclipse of Egalitarianism
most countries the rise and consolidation of national labour movements
involved clear egalitarian commitments: to a narrowing of income differentials,
progressive taxation policy, and universal entitlement to social benefits
and services. In many ways, one of the most impressive testimonies to the
strength of solidaristic principles was the degree to which working-class
organisations drawing their cadres of activists and leaders from the better
educated, higher paid and more secure categories of the labour force nevertheless
espoused policies of particular benefit to the less advantaged. Sectional
interests, in other words, were perceived as best pursued through a more
general commitment to social justice. The post-war consolidation of the
Keynesian welfare state — whether through the political victory of labour
or the acceptance by conservative regimes of the need to reform and humanise
capitalism — represented the apparent victory of these principles.
the form of this victory contained the seeds of its own defeat. The egalitarian
project in most European countries was a type of ‘socialism within one
class’ (and often, within one gender). The central achievement of most
welfare states was to redistribute income within the working population
across the life-cycle (a process which has come to generate increasing
tensions with a change in demographic structure). Egalitarian wage policy
primarily involved the narrowing of differentials within bargaining groups,
to the particular advantage of manual workers classified as lower-skilled.
In itself this helped reduce gender differentials; but to the extent that
employment has tended to be demarcated between (higher-paid) primarily
male industries and (lower-paid) primarily female industries, in those
countries where the most important level of collective bargaining was the
industry or sector then inequalities tended to remain large. There is also
evidence that recent decentralisation of collective bargaining has been
associated with the blockage, or even reversal, of gender equalisation.
And indeed, the combination of economic stringency with an increased female
rate of labour market participation almost inevitably makes the issue of
male-female pay relativities potentially conflictual.
most countries the post-war decades saw some narrowing of income differentials
between manual workers and white-collar employees. Yet to the extent that
these categories were separately represented for purposes of pay determination,
levelling was often greater within each group; and indeed, with
the shift in the numerical balance between the two types of employee, white-collar
unions often articulated the demand for the defence or even expansion of
differentials. In the Swedish case, the result was that the lower range
of white-collar salaries might be higher than the top manual wages (Kjellberg,
1992). As technological change blurred the (always to some extent artificial)
boundary between the two categories, consciousness of inequity was inevitable:
with higher-skilled manual workers either escaping through reclassification
to staff status or demanding a widening of pay differentials. Sweden is
also a clear example of the erosion of the previously hegemonic role of
manual worker unionism, with the share of LO in total union membership
falling from 80 per cent in 1950 to 56 per cent today. Both trends shift
the balance of power towards the better off.
part, then, the retreat from egalitarianism has involved a revolt of the
(relatively) advantaged against the particular manifestations (rising taxes,
narrowing differentials) of the specific form of the egalitarian project.
But the retreat also reflects the erosion of the classic ideological foundations
of this project. The exhaustion of western communism, and the post-1989
collapse of the Soviet bloc, eliminated one point of reference for traditional
notions of class solidarity. Ironically, indeed, in the 1990s the traditional
class struggle rhetoric of the revolutionary left has commonly (most notably
perhaps in Italy) lent endorsement to the sectional militancy of relatively
the very period when most mainstream communist parties came to embrace
social democracy, social-democratic egalitarianism itself was in decline,
for reasons both domestic and external. Domestically, most European social-democratic
parties identified a causal link between declining electoral success and
the dwindling of their traditional manual working-class base; the typical
conclusion was the need to appeal to the expanding ‘new middle class’ by
diluting or abandoning former policy commitments to generous and universal
social welfare funded by high and progressive taxation and to forms of
labour market intervention which offset the inegalitarian dynamics of market
competition. Externally, intensified transnational competition seemed to
spell the end of ‘Keynesianism in one country’. As the French discovered
at the beginning of the 1980s, and the Swedes at the end of the decade,
the location decisions of MNCs and the speculative fluctuations of currency
markets punished national governments whose defence of the Keynesian welfare
state stood out against the general adoption of neo-liberal principles
of fiscal rectitude. The pressures of regime competition — which underlie
the German Standort debate of the 1990s — will be intensified by
monetary union within the framework defined by the Maastricht convergence
criteria. Having endorsed the Maastricht project, European social-democratic
parties are weakly placed to propagate a programmatic alternative to the
neo-liberalism which is at its core.
Alternatives: Towards Organic Solidarity?
solidarity is to survive, it must be re-invented. Here too, we may recall
Durkheim and his conception of a better integrated social order based on
flexible coordination of individuals who were both more differentiated
and (as a necessary consequence) more interdependent. His vision (indeed
excessively idealised) of ‘organic solidarity’ was expressed in the insistence
that ‘society becomes more capable of collective movement, at the same
time that each of its elements has more freedom of movement’ (Durkheim
1933: 131). The task of moving from an old model of mechanical solidarity
to a new model of organic solidarity – or as Heckscher (1988: 177) puts
it, ‘a kind of unionism that replaces organizational conformity with coordinated
diversity’ – demands new efforts of imagination.
project aiming to create such a model must recognise and respect differentiations
of circumstances and interests: within the constituencies of individual
trade unions, between unions within national labour movements, between
workers in different countries. The alignment and integration of diverse
interests is a complex and difficult task which requires continuous processes
of negotiation; real solidarity cannot be imposed by administrative fiat,
or even by majority vote.
construct trade union programmes with which vertically and horizontally
differentiated groups of workers can identify requires a sensitive redefinition
of what interests are represented. If on the one hand unions must
be alert and receptive to (possibly altered) expectations and aspirations
on the part of actual and potential members, on the other a priority must
be to construct an agenda which can unite rather than divide. The representation
of workers’ interests – and their definition, which is necessarily
a prior process – has never been straightforward. Building collective solidarity
is in part a question of organisational capacity, but more fundamentally
it is part of a battle of ideas. The crisis of traditional trade unionism
is reflected not only in the more obvious indicators of loss of strength
and efficacy, but also in the exhaustion of a traditional discourse and
a failure to respond to new ideological challenges. It is those whose projects
are hostile to what unions stand for who have set the agenda of the past
decades. Unions have to recapture the ideological initiative.
a starting point, the labour market perspectives of the ‘mass worker’ with
a standard model of full-time employment, firm-specific job security and
limited scope for occupational advancement can no longer dictate the central
content of bargaining policy. Themes of crucial relevance for contemporary
trade unionism are those of flexibility, security and opportunity. These
concepts have inspired the offensive of employers and the political right
(many of the latter wearing the clothes of social democracy); they must
be reclaimed for different purposes.
is of course primarily a slogan of those who wish to weaken and restrict
labour market protections, making workers more disposable and more adaptable
to the changing requirements of the employer. Yet flexibility can have
alternative meanings. The 1970s objective of ‘humanisation of work’ was
in essence a claim for flexibility in the interests of workers through
the human-centred application of technologies, the adaptation of task cycles
and work speeds to fit workers’ own rhythms, the introduction of new types
of individual and collective autonomy in the control of the labour process.
This agenda has in large measure been hi-jacked as part of the new managerialism
of the 1980s and 1990s (with its mendacious rhetoric of ‘empowerment’,
‘teamwork’ and ‘human resource development’). Can unions recapture the
initiative? A key issue in the contemporary world of work, in addition
to those raised by industrial workers and their unions a quarter-century
ago, is that of time-sovereignty: the temporal linkages between employment,
leisure and domestic life; the ability to influence the patterns of the
working day, week, year and lifetime. There is a worker-oriented meaning
of flexible working time which can directly confront that of the employers
— and which offers new potential for integrating very different types of
employee interest. So too with other dimensions of flexibility; rigidity
and standardisation were impositions of a particular model of capitalist
work organisation; to the extent that some of the features of Taylorist-Fordist
systems have lost their attractions to employers, space exists for unions
to mobilise support for radical alternatives which transcend some of the
divisions within the working class.
example, changes in the organisation of production and the employment relationship
(such as teamworking, quality circles, performance related pay, personalised
contracts) are often accompanied by a managerial propaganda offensive in
which ‘empowerment’ is a central rhetorical device. Dr Goebbels would have
been proud of such discourse, which provides a ‘democratic’ gloss to employer
efforts to intensify production pressures, cut staffing numbers and undermine
traditional forms of collective regulation. The ‘new workplace’ is one
in which employees often have increased responsibilities but always with
reduced power. By focusing their own demands and activities on this contradiction,
trade unions have the potential to address current worker discontents in
ways which generalise fragmented experiences and permit new forms of solidarity
in the pursuit of genuine empowerment.
resurgence of market coercion is causally related to a massive growth of
insecurity. Part of the function of trade unionism is to resist such trends.
To the extent that such resistance is company- or sector-specific, however,
its consequences may well prove divisive. The fight for company-level security,
if successful, by stabilising the position of ‘insiders’ may make the labour
market situation of ‘outsiders’ even more precarious. Where public employees
struggle to retain protections which in the private sector were lost a
decade ago, their unions may be seen as defenders of sectional privilege.
(It may have been only because of very distinctive political circumstances
that the public-sector strikes in France in 1995 and 1996 evoked considerable
constructing an agenda which links the interests of the precarious, the
unemployed and the relatively secure, it is again possible to seek a distinctive
trade union application of current rhetoric which is often used mendaciously.
One concept which has become increasingly popular among policy-makers is
‘employability’: the argument is that individuals can no longer anticipate
unbroken employment within a single organisation but can avoid labour market
vulnerability by acquiring valued competences (including adaptability).
Commonly this rhetoric is no more than a means of individualising the problem
of unemployment and deficient job opportunities and scapegoating the unemployed
for their own marginalisation. Evidently, a purely supply-side labour market
policy will result primarily in a more qualified cohort of unemployed (and
perhaps in a demographic shift in the structure of employment and unemployment).
However, the concept of employability is in principle one which can be
made central to trade union policy, in ways which address what Leisink
(1993, 1996) calls ‘occupational interests’. This would imply the coordination
and integration of demands which unions have indeed often embraced: first,
for enhanced individual entitlements to education and training, and for
flexible opportunities to benefit from these throughout the working life;
second, for more effective (and worker-oriented) provision both
by employers and by education and training institutions; third, for demand-side
policies to encourage employment growth and, no less importantly, to provide
appropriate employment opportunities for ‘upskilled’ workers.
of the difficulty is that these demands address different interlocutors
and involve different levels of initiative, and hence may fail through
lack of coordination. (To take a concrete example: the imaginative and
innovative proposals of IG Metall’s Tarifreform 2000 were overwhelmed
by the macroeconomic problems affecting the German labour market after
unification.) The issue of policy formulation thus links to that of organisational
capacity. Yet it is surely essential that to address workers’ current consciousness
of extreme job insecurity, trade unions develop programmes which offer
hope of real employment opportunity yet do so in a non-divisive manner.
The idea of employability is one which could unite rather than divide.
But to achieve this, trade unions must develop new means of articulation
with workers’ current preoccupations as well as new persuasive capacities.
connects to the third theme identified: opportunity. Again, this is a concept
which has been appropriated by the right but should be reclaimed for the
labour movement. For most of the twentieth century, the core workforce
which formed the main basis of trade unionism achieved their employment
status through the dull compulsion of circumstance. Career advancement
and self-directed occupational mobility are aspirations increasingly salient
for unions’ actual and potential constituencies. The weakening of the ties
to the existing occupation and employer is however emancipating only to
the extent that real and preferable alternatives are open. The choice among
alternative options is an individual project, but one which is illusory
unless a genuine and favourable structure of opportunities exists.
To enhance the opportunity structure is necessarily a collective project,
one which challenges both employers’ discretion and the anarchy of market
forces. In many ways a redefinition of the traditional function of trade
unionism, this is another key dimension of a union agenda which can appeal
to diverse constituencies in solidaristic fashion.
logic of all these themes is the reassertion of rights of labour as against
the imperatives of capital. Many of the most effective interventions by
European unions in the last decade represent partial efforts to articulate
a new discourse of workers’ rights. To regain the initiative, and to provide
the foundation for new forms of solidarity, European labour movements need
to develop these aspects of their programmes in more ambitious and more
systematic ways. What is at issue is nothing less than that much abused
notion, a new hegemonic project.
be more than mere paper interventions, such initiatives must connect to
a reformulation of the how of trade union representation (Accornero,
1992). Organisational forms are inherited from the past and institutionally
embedded; while some adaptations have been occurring and others may be
pursued, radical transformation cannot be anticipated. More may however
be feasible in terms of organisational capacity, democracy and activism.
In an epoch when the traditional arena of trade union intervention — the
national/sectoral level — has diminished in relevance in the face of challenges
from above (global market forces and transnational capital) and below (decentralisation
to the individual company and workplace), traditional recipes are often
ineffective. Current challenges evidently pose new demands in respect of
union intelligence. Knowledge by officials and activists of union organisations,
policies and activities in other countries is uneven; some unions and confederations
possess significant international departments, in others there are minimal
resources. European-level organisations possess extremely restricted capacity
either to influence transnational capital or the EU decision-makers, or
to communicate with the members whom they in theory represent. Even if
it were financially possible to satisfy these requirements by a vast expansion
of the bureaucratic apparatus of international trade unionism, this would
scarcely be a desirable solution. What is necessary is the development
of new channels for the production and communication of trade union intelligence.
links to the issues of strategic leadership and democratic activism. It
is easy to recognise that an urgent current need is for new models of transnational
solidarity and for enhanced capacity for transnational intervention. But
neither can be manufactured from above. The dual challenge is to formulate
more effective processes of strategic direction while sustaining and enhancing
the scope for initiative and mobilisation at the base, to develop both
stronger centralised structures and the mechanisms for more vigorous
grassroots participation: which entails new kinds of articulation
between the various levels of union organisation, representation and action.
the European Union, one of the more fatuous of recent rhetorical devices
is the idea of ‘social dialogue’. Much time and energy are spent by representatives
of European labour in discussion with their counterparts on the employer
side. Very exceptionally indeed this results in an agreement, couched in
such general terms and with such limited content as to contain little of
practical significance. Rather more frequently, discussions result in a
‘joint opinion’. It may indeed be comforting (or perhaps not!) to know
that union representatives may at times be able to align their opinions
with those of employers; but the effect in the real world is imperceptible.
But within and between trade unions themselves, the pursuit
of dialogue and the search for common opinion are vital requirements. Hence
the task of European trade unions today may be encapsulated in the slogan:
develop the internal social dialogue! Enhanced organisational capacity
and organic solidarity demand a high level of multi-directional discussion,
communication and understanding. To be effective at international level,
above all else, trade unionism must draw on the experience at national
level of efforts to reconstitute unions as discursive organisations which
foster interactive internal relationships and serve more as networks than
modern information technologies offer the potential for labour movements
to break out of the iron cage which for so long has trapped them in organisational
structures which mimic those of capital. The Liverpool dockers, in their
long struggle against a ruthless employer, have used e-mail and the world-wide
web to great effect in campaigning for international solidarity. In more
routine ways, intelligent use of new modes of information and communication
can assist in the work of consciousness building and representation (Müller,
1996). With imagination, unions may transform themselves and build an emancipatory
potential for labour in the new millennium. Forward to the ‘virtual trade
union’ of the future!
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